Black Rock Studio only makes racing games; it has ever since it was formed as Climax Racing Studio back in 2000. You may remember it for MotoGP (on PC and Xbox) and ATV Offroad Fury. But when Disney bought the company in late 2006, both owner and developer decided it was time for a change; to put fun ahead of simulation. Pure, which launches later this year, is the first example of this, and both developer and publisher are crossing their axels that it does the business, despite competition from Sony's MotorStorm Pacific Rift and THQ's Baja.
But, as game director Jason Avent explains, Pure is a little different to those. It's an "off-road trick racing game", where the idea is to go very fast and jump very high. "We're going for fear," he says. "Vertigo's not really the only emotion we're going after. But that's the core, that's what we started with. It's all about speed, height, and near misses." Avent is after that feeling you get when you're at full throttle on a quad-bike heading into a dirt jump that forms your entire horizon, and you can see nothing but sky beyond.
And it's fast. The demo level we're shown gets right to it. There are 16 racers on the screen, and the player's rider is bouncing around and twisting the handlebars to steer (we later sit through a lecture about how the bike and machine are treated as separate objects, which helps), dirt is flying up in his wake and the barren, mountainous environment is convincing enough to bring back memories of bygone holidays. Suddenly he's in the air. The camera pans out and ground disappears, as does the music and audio in favour of a falling-bomb whistling sound. If you've ever jumped off a rooftop in Assassin's Creed, you know the feeling; breathtaking, and still on a small scale relative to perils buried deeper in the game. All the while we sit there gawping at this, however, our demonstrator is doing handstands on his quad-bike.
These are just the "A" tricks, but doing these will soon amass enough boost juice to fill the "B" bubble, opening up more stunts. These then give way to "Y" manoeuvres, which are topped only by your signature moves; tricks not rooted in realism like the rest, which involve leaving your bike entirely to perform a bonkers array of gymnastics. As you'll have spotted, these boost bubbles correspond to the buttons you hold on your pad (in our test session's case, the 360 one) to activate a trick, and wiggling the left stick and pressing a shoulder button allows you to tweak or link your moves. The more impressive your trick, the more boost juice you are rewarded with. Repeating stunts meets with diminishing boost returns, and holding the pose for too long leads to crashes, which drain your boost gauge a little or a lot depending on the gravity of your error.
Tricks are not the only things that open up as you gain more boost juice, either; the faster you go, the higher you jump, and the higher you soar, the more alternative routes around the course you'll see and be able to get to. Boost is essential, then, and you will rely on it to win. Avent reckons you'll spend about 60 percent of your time in the air, and when you get good enough you can boost-surf your way around the level. This obviously takes practice, but adds significant longevity as you begin to slowly master it. It also explains the "off-road trick racing" label Avent stamps on the game. "That's really the difference; it's an action sport, an extreme sport more than an off-road racing game. We call it off-road trick racing. It's a little niche; there's not really been anything like it before." So there it is: more SSX than MotorStorm.
There are several real-world locations to traipse across, each containing multiple courses that we're promised are more taxing, beautiful and vertigo-strewn than the last. And they are pretty; the draw distance is 20 in-game kilometres, but even up close the textures on stones, grass and debris are pleasingly detailed and vibrant. We thought the trees looked a little stuck on in the distance and that dust kicked up by bikes was a bit basic (also causing frame-rate issues), but were assured that the team aims to lock the game at 30 frames-per-second in the months it has left before its autumn launch. It's also worth noting that the AI was running at a hellishly difficult level as it is among the last things to be tuned, so any questions about the learning curve will have to be answered close to release.
Game modes, then, are split into Race, Sprint (described as an "espresso shot"), and Freestyle, with variations of each tossed in as you go. There are around 50 events and 10 tours in total, and you have to get a certain distance through one tour to unlock the next, although apparently this will be fairly kind. There are six characters picked from regions where people do actually do quad-bike racing, with a seventh available to unlock a bit later on. Each of the riders has their own personalities, animations, clothes and signature tricks as well. Your bikes are completely upgradable and customisable, too, allowing you to tweak looks and performance until you've explored all 60,000 possible combinations of equipment (good luck, testers). There are bars with performance sliders on to give you visual feedback on what that new exhaust pipe does, but if all this work under the digital hood seems daunting, the game can quick-build a bike for you.
Elsewhere, Pure has multiplayer support for you and up to 15 friends, and everything you can do offline you can do online. We're told there is also another, secret mode that is "uniquely suited" to Internet action and not available in single-player [getting drunk and MSNing people, perhaps - Ed]. "In terms of downloadable content, we haven't got any plans - that's probably something we'll do in the future," Avent added, as we pulled out our usual sticks. "This is our first game for Black Rock, first game for Disney, first game on PS3, and we wanted it to be fast and it does look good, will sound great, and there are lots and lots of challenges. We're doing a lot of new things. Adding a download engine and committing to doing loads and loads of online content is just a bit of a step too far." Similarly, the team decided not to do a Wii version to avoid splitting the team's focus.
Focus, handily, is what Pure is all about. During our tour of Black Rock Studio, we were lectured extensively about particle this, mapping procedures that, trips to the American deserts, and all sorts. Most of it may have sailed acrobatically over our head waving its arms with expert timing, but the underlying message was clear: we care a lot, and we're paying attention to detail. For our part, if this "off-road trick racing game" is what it looks like, it could give MotorStorm and Baja a muddy run for their money rather than sinking beneath their weight.
Pure is due out on PC, PS3 and 360 this autumn.